A century-long era without a major war, as from the Congress of Vienna to the Guns of August, it has not been. We have seen, nonetheless, a blessedly long run of international peace between the major powers in our own time following the close of World War II.
The stretch since 1945 without a conflict with worldwide consequences, despite a couple of close calls, adds up as of this writing to fifty-two years and counting, with the prospects for continued general peace better now than at virtually any other time over that stretch of time. Even the ideologically based Cold War has ended, concluded not as many long feared by a catastrophic ICBM shooting war, but replaced by recognition, at least by the possessers of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, that technology makes all-out warfare an exercise in mass suicide. Soviet and U. S. leaders came finally to realize, as David S. Painter has phrased it, that nuclear wars might be fought but could not be won.
The nuclear era, then, contrary to dread expectations and dire predictions, has brought the “Long Peace,” in John Gaddis’ expression. Other observers have used the phrase the “Nuclear Peace” to describe, perhaps even more aptly, the period of non-war. Weapons technology has made armed conflict unthinkable between the nations with nuclear capabilities.
But has it, really? The same was said in the years following the invention of dynamite in 1866 due to its destructive power, and I recall once seeing a cartoon, probably in The New Yorker, showing cave dwellers commenting on how the newly invented bow and arrow would have the effect of eliminating war. Perhaps we, viewing the world’s experience with nuclear weapons as a deterrent over the past half-century and heaving a sigh of relief, have a tendency toward presentism not unlike the contemporaries of Alfred Nobel and of that first clever inventor millenia ago, depicted in the cartoon of my memory as a caveman, who devised a new means to deliver death and injury at a distance. Can we realistically say, with all possible irony, that the Nuclear Age has ushered in an indefinite period of peace?
Well, Alex Roland of Duke University does not say that exactly in his long piece, “Technology and War,” which we have the pleasure of presenting in this issue of American Diplomacy. Dr. Roland presents facts and figures on the notable decline in battle deaths incurred during the second half of this century, compared with the years through the end of the Second World War, and he takes the position that this is due to nuclear weapons’ becoming the first set of weapons ever in history that the holders dared not use. Building on the monumental (if not now widely known) work of the University of Chicago’s Quincy Wright, first published well over a half-century ago, he has built a convincing case for the proposition that thermonuclear warheads, when mounted on ballistic missiles, revolutionized warfare; the weapons system did not represent simply another step in the escalation of warfare, as did the bow and arrow and as did much later, dynamite. Technology, a central focus also of Wright’s work, in Roland’s formulation drove what he calls the “bizarre logic of nuclear deterrence,” leading to neither superpower’s unleashing its arsenal because neither had any certainty of winning the war. Further, the threat of nuclear war limited the spread and intensity of conventional war as the superpowers imposed constraints on their client states and coalitions. War in the second half of the twentieth century remained no less brutal and horrible in essence than Wright envisioned for the future, but Roland points out that it has been less deadly than any observers could have had reason to expect some decades ago.
But let Professor Roland make his own case. We invite you to read his article in this issue and then to let him have any and all of your comments. You may send e-mail message to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you wish, through this journal at email@example.com. He tells us he would welcome comment and criticism.
- ~ Ed.